Sound and light have way more in common than you think, which is why it’s easy to turn light data, like radio waves, into sound. This can make for some pretty incredible science communicating tools – just look up Jupiter’s whistlers, falling bomb sounds caused by the planet’s lightning; or the chirp of LIGO’s gravitational wave detection, an ascending bloop as two black holes collide.
Now you can listen to plasma waves rushing past Saturn toward Enceladus. It kind of sounds like a whooshing chaos.
Sound and light both travel as waves. Sound consists of vibration through a medium, and light is electromagnetic radiation through space. Both have frequencies – which we interpret as colour in light waves and pitch in sound waves – as well as amplitudes, meaning brightness or loudness. Radios work by taking sound, converting it into an electromagnetic wave called a radio wave, and then decoding it to make a sound wave again.
In this case, scientists measured these waves of plasma, or electrically charged particles, at a frequency that humans can hear. You’re essentially listening to a converted version of the plasma around Saturn. That’s why it sounds, well, pretty incoherent. Converting non-audio information to sound is called sonification, and is often used to help people better understand scientific results, but is occasionally used by artists or musicians.
The data comes from a pair of papers published in Geophysical Research Letters, reporting on observations of the plasma around Saturn during Cassini’s final orbits. Both papers find that Saturn’s rings and its moon Enceladus have a measurable impact on the planet’s own ionosphere, the layer of its atmosphere with charged particles. Our Moon does not have such an effect on Earth’s ionosphere, according to a NASA release.
What can you do with sound creations like this? Well, you can use them to help better conceptualise the strange phenomena of space. Or maybe you can get one of your more musically inclined friends to write a song. [NASA]